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Sri Lanka terror attack: As Islamic State bares fangs in South Asia, India needs to be wary; NIA arrests of suspected IS sympathisers worrisome

The Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attack and its aftermath involving a frantic search for people and organisations linked to the suspects (all suicide bombers) has opened up a can of worms about the thriving extremist network in South Asia and how it is fast spreading its tentacles in relatively peaceful countries such as Sri Lanka.

According to the latest report by The Indian Express, intelligence agencies are tracking over a dozen men from Tamil Nadu and Kerala whose phone numbers were found in the Call Detail Records (CDRs) of 29-year-old Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind behind the blasts.

On Monday, as part of its probe into Hashim’s India links, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested one of the three men, detained on Sunday, on suspicion of being an Islamic State (IS) recruit and “for conspiring to commit a terrorist act”.

The NIA team has also claimed to have stumbled upon a video involving Hashim in which he can be seen exhorting Muslims from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka to fight for the cause of Islam.

Hashim, the agency believes, travelled to both Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the past couple of years. It further raided seven locations and arrested six for suspected links with the IS, including R Ashiq, Ismail, Salavuddin, Jafar Sadiq Ali, Shahul Hameed, Shamsuddin.

 Sri Lanka terror attack: As Islamic State bares fangs in South Asia, India needs to be wary; NIA arrests of suspected IS sympathisers worrisome

Representational image. Reuters

The agency has identified the man arrested in the recent raid as Palakkad resident Riyas Abubakar alias Abu Dujana who apart from admitting to following IS leaders and their principles and agendas, said that he was into the speeches of (Islamic preacher) Zakir Naik and inspired from them, wanted to carry out a suicide attack in Kerala, the report states. It is based on similar videos and audio clips as found with Riyas during the NIA raid, that the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had in December 2018, alerted the Sri Lankan authorities of an impending attack on the island nation.

The agency has claimed that almost all the men which it has zeroed in on have been in contact with various IS fighters based out of Syria and Afghanistan and also carrying out talks with local handlers and recruiters.

The Hindustan Times had reported that Hashim and another Sri Lanka bomber, Mohammad Azaan, had travelled to India in 2017 and 2018 to discuss the plans of IS.

The Islamic State came on the radar of Indian intelligence agencies in 2013 when local reports from Syria suggested that a few Indians too were fighting alongside the IS in the region. However, the group was not considered a direct threat to India and its citizens until 2014 when IS kidnapped 39 Indians in Iraq and executed them.

In fact, an IS map of the Khorasan Caliphate shows some of India’s states as its part. BBC reporter Andrew Hosken, who has included the map of the targeted areas in his book 'Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State' — released in 2015 — said IS wants "to take over all of what they see as the Islamic world".

Since then there have been various reports of Indians travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside IS and as many as 100 have been arrested by the agencies either on return from the region or while preparing to join them. Many have been arrested for preparing to carry out an attack in India after being inspired by the group's module and thinking.

Meanwhile, the IS, after initial successes, finally ceased to exist in a limited area in eastern Syria when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces officially declared its end by taking over the village of Baghouz in March. However, the biggest challenge lies with the handling of the ‘post Caliphate’ face of the group as the fighters start to move back to their countries raising risk of influencing more people to join the network.

Thousands of IS fighters have dispersed from Iraq and Syria to protect themselves and are trying to return to their countries of origin, this also includes the case of IS brides like Shamima Begum, who though, aren't directly involved in inflicting violence but hold extremist views which can influence young teenagers to commit themselves to the jihadist cause.

Further, the IS has very effectively used the internet and social media to create global support. Most of its international networks are run by handlers who reach out to people through encrypted messaging platforms and by putting out videos promising a life of dedication and supreme sacrifice to the God (Allah), often brainwashing them into travelling to the Caliphate.

However, those who are left behind try to create their own outfits swearing allegiance to the IS and are potential threats for their native nations or countries of residence. A report by PBS News Hour, had highlighted that how around 40,000 IS fighters were stranded after the group started shrinking, and even though many of them faced prosecution thereafter, their eventual fate was unknown.

On Tuesday, IS released a video of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acknowledging its defeat in Baghouz. However, Baghdadi in his address sounds far from defeated as he swore to continue creating havoc on the Christian community ("battle of Islam and its people against the cross") and also hinted at the group's plan to expand and reclaim its territories soon.

“Americans and Europeans failed as we congratulate our brothers in Sri Lanka for their allegiance to the caliphate,” Baghdadi says in the video. “And we advise them to stick to the cause of God and unity and to be a thorn in the chest of the crusaders. We ask God to accept their martyrdom and help the brothers fulfil the journey they started," the terror mastermind puts it out loud and clear.

As The Guardian notes, the IS, while no longer able to control its territory, is believed to be regrouping in towns and villages on both sides of the Syrian border, and planning for a return to the years of insurgency that followed the US invasion of Iraq.

And this, may not immediately ring alarm bells for India, but the South Asian country should well sense trouble considering how the group is now spreading its fangs to the region with many of its sleeper cell networks also operating throughout it. Even as the agencies continue to crack down on suspected handlers, a tactical approach to defeating the group's purpose and ideology is required to disallow it from attracting susceptible youth.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2019 15:14:49 IST